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Cabaret Month

Celebrated with special shows and events in various cities, the slogan "March Is 'Cabaret Month'" sounds like a proclamation. And indeed, as in past years, the Mayor of New York City has issued an official proclamation heralding that genre-embracing month of March which includes several evenings in New York City, including the Bistro Awards (March 4, Gotham Comedy Club), a benefit for the Mabel Mercer Foundation (March 6, The Players Club), the annual bash for the online newsletter Cabaret Hotline (also March 6, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre), and the MAC Awards whose theme this year is "where Broadway meets cabaret" (March 21, at BB King's). So we've held on to a few 2012 releases related to award winners and nominees and other prominent cabaret figures to spotlight this week (with more to come throughout March).

T. OLIVER REID
DO I LOVE YOU?

Yellow Sound Label

Beginning with the revival of Kiss Me, Kate, T. Oliver Reid has racked up numerous credits singing and dancing in ensembles of Broadway musicals, such as Mary Poppins, Sister Act and La Cage aux Folles. In the last few years, he's ventured into cabaret, after having won the annual singing competition the MetroStar Talent Challenge at the Metropolitan Room. His prize was an all-expenses-paid run at that club, which led to his being chosen for a coveted spot among veterans in the annual Cabaret Convention presented by the Mabel Mercer Foundation and other appearances. Those include a run at the now-closed posh club Feinstein's at Loews Regency, with an act reprised recently at 54 Below. He won the Male Debut award from MAC (the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) and is nominated again this year as Male Vocalist and for this debut album, Do I Love You?. He's already been announced as one of the winners to be honored Monday at the Bistro Awards in the category of Theme Show for his look at the storied history of nightclubs in Harlem in an earlier era.

Reid's stylings and approach combine a focused intensity on serious numbers and a fierceness of abandon on uptempo selections. While he bites out lively or strutting moments with ultra-crisp diction, he more often has a flowingly legato sound showcasing a wide-ranging voice that can impressively scoop down to rich, full baritone notes and ascend all the way to high but firm falsetto flutterings. Both extremes are very effective, and while some may argue that they are not always intrinsic choices serving the song's main missions in storytelling, they are often thrilling and tingling. A showman who also shows his heart on his sleeve, there's a mix of bruised vulnerability and an underpinning of regal toughness that shouldn't co-exist and make sense, but they do. A grounded sense of song and emotion ownership allows for a commanding presence, even when he takes flights of fancy or tough stances. He knows the power of timing—letting a key word sink in with a pause or slowing things down a tad. The accompaniment by the band, led by Broadway's Larry Yurman on piano, is often kept spare and avoiding excess fills or frills. This keeps the focus on the tension of the story and lyric in a sensitive piece. But when they let fly, they let fly, with boisterous energy.

"Any Little Fish" (which Yurman also did in his piano/vocal album with Christine Ebersole on her Noël Coward album) is perky and sly, the real "fun" number with a dash of spice. Based on one of Reid's cabaret acts, the set is mainly standards, with Rodgers & Hart being well represented. The flexible melody lines of Harold Arlen are also firmly in his grasp. T. (for Tim) coasts through the repertoire with confidence and care, whether heartfelt ("Over the Rainbow" where sincerity trumps over-familiarity or cliché) or broken-hearted ("I Can't Make You Love Me")—or just indulging her playful, winking side on a romp.

Music fans could read about Reid, too; with a big feature story on him, this singer also had his smiling face grace the cover of Cabaret Scenes Magazine's January/February issue. While that goes off the stands and "take-one" boxes in nightclubs across the country today as their new issue hits, this fellow himself will be around those venues' stages for a long time.

MOIRA DANIS
SOME PEOPLE'S LIVES

Among a bevy of honorees for live performances (such as Broadway vets Lainie Kazan and Maurice Hines for their body of work), this year the Bistro Awards committee gives a nod to a studio recording based on Moira Danis and her band's live cabaret show, Some People's Lives. The CD begins and closes with arresting a capella versions of the title song by Janis Ian and Kye Fleming, as Moira is joined vocally by her longtime arranger-conductor Wells Hanley, Ben Mars and Brian Griffin—who otherwise on the album not only sing, but play, respectively, piano, bass and percussion. This is a real team effort with the gentlemen truly shining as well as the persuasively plaintive-voiced lady. The men sing quite a bit—not only harmonizing, but as soloists, all with solid and appealingly emotion-charged voices that are different from each other in timbre and tone, and the combined forces prove over and over the old adage about the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

As the apt title suggests, the CD provides glimpses at the specific experiences and points of view of disparate, clearly-drawn folks of all kinds. At turns visceral or touching, life-affirming or boldly questioning, it's a potent and pensive potpourri that's musically rich and dramatic. The singer's inherently sweet voice and thoughtfulness bring vulnerability and depth to some of the stronger statements.

Mostly a dramatic and elegant affair, the recording also has two country-flavored comic relief numbers ("Nellie the Nudist Queen" and "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly"). While they were indeed felt as comical vacations from the laser-beamed intensity of the live show, they seem less necessary on the album, even a bit jarring. It feels like a surprise to witness the goofy glee Moira and Wells jump in with in the midst of a parade of fragility, maturity, and civility.

Numbers from musical theatre are among the highlights, but it's not just the most "usual suspects." Even the well-known Sondheim selection, "Another Hundred People," gets a face lift as it is reset to a shifting rhythm that gives it a less intense, less edge of frustration and more begrudging acceptance, perhaps suggesting city survival skills. From the intriguing but sadly unsuccessful Dance a Little Closer with a score by Charles Strouse and Alan Jay Lerner, they've chosen the sobering and serious "Anyone Who Loves." It's an unblinking but sensitive series of strong statements, well handled here. "My Brother Lived in San Francisco" from Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens (Janet Hood/ Bill Russell) successfully spotlights both the pain and the warm memories that come from the loss of a loved one gone too soon. "Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10," the touching cut song from Sweet Charity that has attracted several female vocalists over the years, gets the appropriate snapshot of childhood memories of a dress beloved by the daughter of a traveling salesman of "juvenile frocks."

Stiles and Drewe, the wonderful British songwriting team who've musicalized a few childhood classics, and provided the new songs for the stage version of Mary Poppins, have their "They Don't Make Glass Slippers" as part of a major set piece exploring the impact of the rosy, romantic, rags-to-riches expectations imbued in childhood via storybook characters. The eight-and-a-half-minute extravaganza also includes "And There It Is" by Scott Alan and "Fairytale" by Sara Bareilles. Part fierce "wake up and smell the grown-up coffee"/bubble-bursting indictment, part lament, part implied longing for innocent fantasies, it's earnestly and effectively done with passion and pathos yet escapes the dangers of melodrama.

On March 24, Moira will be performing at the long-lived theatre district cabaret named after a show tune: Don't Tell Mama. She'll mix selection from this album with selections from her two prior CDs.

VARIOUS ARTISTS
TOGETHER THROUGH TIME: THE BROWNINGS IN WORD & SONG
MUSIC BY ELIZABETH FOWLER SULLIVAN

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of poet Robert Browning, the New York Browning Society has released a CD featuring both his poems and those of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In addition to the recitations by various theatre performers, six are also set to music (typically sung by someone else, following the spoken presentation of the same piece).

Ladies first: let's look at some of the representations from the lady poet. Three pieces benefit from the versatility of the acting talent and immersion in character and attention to detail that come with one of cabaret's most important and skilled figures, KT Sullivan, also one of the genre's great supporters—she's in many audiences when not on stage somewhere in the world herself (she made her Far East debut in a club in China recently and then London's newest cabaret room). KT hosts the MAC Awards this year and is a nominee once again herself (for her duo show with Karen Kohler which can be seen on Sundays at Stage 72, formerly the Triad). She also hosts the March 6 benefit for the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which she now heads. Featured as a songstress on this CD (once, marvelously, with "Sonnet XXI" following the delicious recitation of it by theatre veteran Tammy Grimes) and reciting two selections from "Aurora Leigh: Book 1." Whether singing or speaking, KT grabs and tickles the ear with the precision of her coloring of words and sounds and knows the power of the kind of pause that suggests a raised eyebrow or a twinge of rue. Two formidable women get the assignment of the poem that begins with the famous line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." You can count on Tovah Feldshuh to take this on with relish as she speaks the lines, and then deep-voiced dignified singer Nicole Mitchell takes it from the top, singing the same words with regal, ringing tones.

KT, who is the album's producer, too, represents part of what is a family affair. First of all, her mother, Elizabeth Fowler Sullivan, plays piano on most of the 14 tracks and is the composer of the verses set to evocative mood-appropriate, elegant music. Her settings of the poems add to their power, never obscuring them, but making them more dramatic, with added tension and tenderness. Often, the music she's written and plays so touchingly brings new emphases to certain words due to the notes they sit on, a spotlight created by a more prolonged note or change in tempo. She plays underscoring that provides more than just a buffering, billowing blanket for many of the spoken sections, too. Whether somber or rhapsodic, pointedly challenging or enabling fragile threads of romance, Mrs. Sullivan (a fine singer and writer of songs of her own) brings new hues and views to the historic writings. And KT's husband Stephen Downey—who is the President of the Browning Society—ably graces three of the poems of the male half of the famed couple whose relationship was surveyed in the musical some years back, Robert and Elizabeth. Mr. Downey's affection for the poet's words and their timelessness is evident—he speaks the lines conversationally, as if they are being felt and thought in the moment, bringing an immediacy to the work as well as a determined romanticism. His spoken presentations of one poetry pairing is followed by them being sung (and played) by cabaret's gentlemanly Steve Ross, whose voice is laced with brimming ardor and then bittersweet yearning. The poem "Now" gets the Downey drama followed by a powerful and thoroughly enveloped pathos-packed emotionality by T. Oliver Reid.

Also heard on the CD are actor Brian Murray, Keith Merrill, Matthew Coles, Stephen Lehew, Charles Turner, Craig Wichman, and a sometime Sullivan co-star, Craig Rubano (whose resume includes Broadway's Les Misérables, recordings and many a concert/Cabaret Convention). His stirring "Prospice" is radiant and passionate, tempered with discretion and giving way, happily, to dynamism.

This CD can only be purchased through contact addresses on the Society's website. They have monthly meetings for appreciators of the Brownings' work and the guest speaker for the March 13 get-together is a major Broadway writer: Sheldon Harnick, who will discuss the impact of Browning on his own work.


- Rob Lester


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